On Dec. 6, 1941, New Yorkers had a prurient interest in Tommy Manville — famous socialite and heir to the Johns-Manville asbestos fortune — and his latest wife, 22-year-old showgirl Bonita Edwards. The Daily News said they were parting ways after only 17 days of matrimony, not unexpected for Manville, who was married 13 times to 11 different women.
A day later, the nation was thrust into its biggest existential struggle of the 20th century with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. People no longer had time for trivial things.
The next day, Kennedy was murdered, and worldwide grief made such things cruelly insignificant.
And so it was on Sept. 10, 2001. The nation was obsessed with the disappearance of former Washington intern Chandra Levy and her possible relationship with California congressman Gary Condit, a connection never remotely proven. People also were convinced shark attacks were on the rise off every beach, despite facts to the contrary.
The next day, we were thrust into the realization that the most relevant story of the day before, one that ran on page A4 in the Deseret News, concerned the Taliban not letting Western diplomats near eight foreign aid workers who had been thrown into a prison in Afghanistan.
Life-altering events are like ice water splashed in the face of frivolous pursuits.
But really, this kind of analysis is lazy. Americans, like people in all prosperous nations, are easily distracted by the trivial and unimportant.
After the horrors of 9/11, the editor of Vanity Fair declared an end to the age of irony. The shallow, unserious attitudes that had permeated the culture now seemed too trivial and useless to bother with. We had been jolted into a nation of serious people who suddenly understood what really mattered, and who were resolved to face the challenges ahead.
Which lasted a couple of weeks, tops.
No, it’s much more interesting to study who we are today — the day before who knows what? — and compare that to any date in 2001. The picture is startling.
Start with this one: A Pew Research Center survey measuring Americans’ trust in government found 60% expressing great trust on Oct. 6, 2001. Naturally, the unifying effect of 9/11 had something to do with that, but the trust level had been rising before the attacks, as well.
The latest such poll, conducted in April of 2021, found only 24% saying they trust the federal government to do what’s right even most of the time.
What has changed? A sense of powerlessness exacerbated by charismatic politicians? Bad behavior by elected officials?
A different Pew poll is perhaps more alarming. Taken in 2019, it found 71% of Americans think we have less confidence in each other than 20 years ago, while 49% think this is because people aren’t as reliable as they once were. But 21% think we’ve lost this trust for no good reason at all. They have a point.
You want an age of irony? How about Republicans and Democrats jockeying today for political advantage over the recent, tragic events surrounding the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (Trump started it! Biden should be impeached!), when the overriding message is that terrorists still exist, and they still would do anything to destroy the United States and its way of life.
As Tom Rogan wrote recently for The Washington Examiner, “Whatever conciliatory rhetoric the Taliban now offer, their hate for America remains fervent.”
Consider how many Americans have lost faith in the nation’s most important institution — its multi-layered, federalized and mostly volunteer-driven process of conducting free and fair elections — despite no credible evidence of widespread fraud.
Consider, too, how contemptibly partisan we have become. A Pew poll in 2019 found only 12% of Republicans think the phrase, “Governs in an honest and ethical way” described Democrats, while 15% of Democrats said the same about Republicans. Also, 73% of Americans believe the two parties don’t just differ in policies; they can’t agree on basic facts.
The ultimate irony, then, is that 20 years after 9/11, despite waging wars, killing Osama bin Laden and protecting the nation from an attack of similar magnitude, we are doing to ourselves what no outside enemy could accomplish.
No matter what may happen tomorrow, that is no trivial thing.